Why Were These Ancient Adults Buried in Jars on the Island of Corsica?

Researchers are unsure of the unusual funerary practice’s purpose but point out that such burials were typically reserved for children

Skeletons in Jars
Archaeologists say the skeletons are in an "average state" of preservation. © Pascal Druelle / INRAP

In spring 2019, researchers from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) found evidence of ancient tombs on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Now, after resuming digging at the site, archaeologists have discovered a necropolis containing around 40 burials dated to between the third and sixth centuries A.D.

As Amanda Morrow reports for Radio France Internationale (RFI), scholars began excavating a pair of 6,458-square-foot sites in the center of Île Rousse, a village on the western coast of the island, in late February. They uncovered ceramic fragments and bones, many of which were interred in imported amphorae, or jars used mainly for transporting wine and olive oil.

The new finds shed light on the region’s history prior to Île Rousse’s establishment in the mid-18th century. Until now, “archaeological evidence of previous occupation [in the area] was rare and fragmentary,” notes INRAP in a statement, per a translation by RFI.

Île Rousse’s ancient inhabitants buried their dead in a variety of ways: Some of the tombs were cut directly into rock, while others were outfitted with terracotta materials, such as flat Roman tiles known as tegulae and rounded roofing tiles called imbrices. The majority of the remains were placed in amphorae scattered across the two sites. Per the statement, one individual was actually entombed in a set of nested amphorae.

The practice of burying babies in jars dates back to the Bronze Age and continued until as recently as the 20th century, Yoav Arbel, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority who was not involved in the recent excavation, told Live Science’s Laura Geggel last December. (Arbel was part of a team that discovered one such 3,800-year-old burial in the Israeli city of Jaffa.)

An archaeologist cleans and examines one of the burial vessels. © Pascal Druelle / INRAP
Corsica's ancient residents probably imported the amphorae from Africa. © Pascal Druelle / INRAP
Aerial view of the archaeological site © Pascal Druelle / INRAP

Though evidence of such funerary rituals appears regularly in the archaeological record, scholars remain unsure of the practice’s purpose. As INRAP points out, amphora burials were typically reserved for infants and children, but the Île Rousse necropolis contains multiple adults who were laid to rest in the large, cylindrical vessels.

Ancient craftspeople probably manufactured the amphorae in Africa. Between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D., Corsica’s inhabitants imported amphorae containing wine, olive oil and brine from Carthage, a city in what is now Tunisia, according to the statement.

INRAP researchers are still determining the ages of the skeletons, which they say are in an “average state” of preservation, per RFI. No funerary offerings or goods were found buried alongside the deceased.

The area where archaeologists discovered the remains has been occupied for thousands of years. As the Île Rousse commune’s official website states, Phoenician colonists christened the coastal city Agilla around 1000 B.C.; when Rome conquered Corsica in the third century B.C., Agilla was renamed Rubico Rosega.

Following the Roman Empire’s fall in 410 A.D., the city was all but abandoned. It served as a haven for smugglers and fishermen in the centuries preceding Île Rousse’s establishment, according to the History Blog.

Archaeologists are unsure exactly which group buried the ancient remains, but as RFI reports, ongoing research on the island may offer new insights on its long-ago inhabitants.

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